Central PugetSound Marine Mammal Stranding Network

by Orca Network
Seal pup hauled out to rest on a dock
Seal pup hauled out to rest on a dock

Whew! We made it through another Harbor seal pupping season - from June to early August for new-born sightings, through late August through October for "weaner" sightings. Moms will nurse their pups for four to six weeks before weaning them.  Pups that have been weaned are called “weaners”.

There were a total of 128 Harbor seal pup reports in 2014, 114 in 2015, and 134 in 2016 (see chart).

There were two happenings of interest this year. Of the 16 reports in June, six were of premature, or "lanugo", pups with an unspotted white coat. No lanugo seal pups were reported in the two previous years.

Also, there were more reports of weaner pups in September and October this year, including one healthy pup who climbed onto a dock at a busy marina. He remained there for two days, despite visits by dogs, curious children and an attempt by a man to shove it off the dock (which is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act). After two days the pup took off for parts unknown, likely finding a less busy place to haul out. A happy ending!

Another unusual behavior noted this year was that of a juvenile male California sea lion. He came ashore on south Whidbey Island, and followed a worker operating a back hoe on the beach to rebuild a sea wall for several days, then later reports had him being curious and friendly to some local residents. Apparent friendliness is unusual in a sea lion in this region, and could be a sign of illness, but nothing obvious was observed when the sea lion was assessed and observed by our volunteer (though it is difficult to safely do more than assess live sea lions from a distance). Nevertheless, people were warned to stay a safe distance away in case he suddenly became aggressive, and our volunteer talked to all the neighbors in the area to educate them about the sea lion. After all a sea lion is an unpredictable wild animal with large teeth, who can move very fast on land. He remained in the area for a couple of days and then went out to sea. Another happy ending.

Seal pup season is the busiest time of year for the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and we educate hundreds of local residents and visitors to our area about seals and pupping season, and how to safely observe marine mammals on the beach from a distance. 

Thanks to your support, we are able to continue education and stranding response efforts in Island, Skagit and North Snohomish counties in Washington state - we could not do it without your help!


Healthy seal pup napping on the beach
Healthy seal pup napping on the beach

We are approximately half way through our July - August harbor seal pupping season. From the chart below (pale blue bar) you can see we are in the normal range of calls for the season. "Seal pup story" messages have been recorded on our Orca Network and Stranding Network phones, as well as on the NOAA Hotline.

Callers can learn from the message how to share the shore with seal pups potentially reducing the number of phone calls our volunteers must answer personally. In addition, more people are engaging themselves in "citizen science" by reporting to us more extensive details about the physical appearance and health of these animals. And people LOVE to send us cell phone pictures. This often enables us to assess a seal pup situation and determine whether it is a healthy pup. By engaging the public in the gathering of information they learn from the experience and become a part of the response, which motivates a stronger stewardship ethic and inspires them to share what they have learned with their neighbors and friends. 

During the busy seal pup season of July, Orca Network posted a seal pup photo and the link to NOAA's excellent publication "Sharing the Shore with Seal Pups" front and center on our website homepage, and directed many callers to the site to learn more about why seal pups must rest on the beaches undisturbed while their moms forage for food. We also talked directly to many people on the phone, as well as on the beach, and in cases where a pup is resting at a marina dock or on a busy beach, volunteers worked with the community to post signs and educate the neighborhood to not disturb the pup. During seal pup season, our Langley Whale Center has a seal pup display front and center as people walk in the door, including a seal pup pelt collected by our Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and photos of seal pups on local beaches and what to do when you see one.

While both the human and seal populations have been growing in our region, increasing the potential for seal pup disturbance, we are very pleased to be noticing a change in what we hear from callers reporting seal pups. While there are still many visitors or residents who may not realize seeing a seal pup alone on a beach is normal, we have seen a marked increase in the number of callers who tell us they know the pup is ok and they are supposed to leave the pup alone, and are just reporting it to us so we are aware of it, or often are reporting other people on the beach who need to be educated. Through brochures, rack cards and displays at our Langley Whale Center, and through social media, emails, news releases, and interpretive signs, Orca Network's Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network continues to educate and engage the public in learning about marine mammals, and how to share our beaches with them.


Vertebrae from Harbor Porpoise, after cleaning
Vertebrae from Harbor Porpoise, after cleaning

The Orca Network/Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network and Baylor University in Waco, Texas have been cooperating on a harbor porpoise study. Two harbor porpoises that died on local beaches were necropsied by the Central Puget Sound Stranding Network crew. The cause of death of one female porpoise was determined to be verminous pneumonia. The COD of the second porpoise was undetermined.

Both carcasses were flensed, frozen and shipped to Baylor University where Dr. Stephanie Norman, a member of the CPSMMSN crew and Post Doctoral Fellow at Baylor, and Drs Stephen Trumble and  Sascha Usenko with the Departments of Biology and Environmental Science, initiated a project to rearticulate both porpoise skeletons for educational display at the University. Thirteen undergraduate students, studying various associated scientific disciplines, took part in the project. None of these students had ever seen or heard of a harbor porpoise so this became a wonderful learning experience for them.

In addition, another harbor porpoise skeleton was recently cleaned for the CPSMMSN by a dermestid beetle colony at the Burke Museum in Seattle following tissue sampling for their Genetic Resources Collection. This skeleton will be rearticulated by local volunteers from CPSMMSN, Orca Network and the Langley Whale Center Youth Team for eventual display at our Langley Whale Center.          

As our stranding season heats up for the summer months we have had additional requests for intact carcasses of seals and porpoises, as well as skulls and tissues from all marine mammals that wash up dead on our beaches.  It is exciting to know that whatever we collect will add to the knowledge of the physical conditions, environmental impacts, (example toxin levels), physiology, neurology and genetics of these species. 

Harbor Porpoise ribs ready for rearticulation
Harbor Porpoise ribs ready for rearticulation
Porpoise pectoral fins, complete with "fingers"!
Porpoise pectoral fins, complete with "fingers"!


Porpoise Necropsy, with Dr Barry Rickman
Porpoise Necropsy, with Dr Barry Rickman

    We have an update on a 2013 stranding of a fresh dead harbor porpoise which was collected from a local beach on Nov. 1, 2013. It was a 62” long adult female weighing approximately 160 lbs. A full necropsy was performed and tissues taken for histopathology. The lungs, lymph nodes and spleen showed evidence of cancer, identified as B cell lymphoma.This was the first description of lymphoma in a harbor porpoise, or in any species of porpoise.

      The skeleton was flensed and frozen for possible further use. We have now found a great use for the skeleton which is presently being cleaned by the dermestid beetle colony at the Burke Museum in Seattle. Once cleaned, we plan on enlisting the Langley Whale Center Youth Groups and Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network volunteers to reconstruct the skeleton for display at the Center, hopefully by the end of this year.

      Several new specimen additions have been made to the Langley Whale Center: a spectacular sea otter pelt, a 10’ long plate of bowhead whale baleen and a 22” long walrus “oosik”. Our Langley Whale Center is a great success and has become a real visitor attraction, even more so as we continue to expand our exhibits. It makes for a perfect partnership of Orca Network's educational efforts: the research and stranding response done by our Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network results in information and specimens that provide hands on educational exhibits and opportunities at the Langley Whale Center for residents, visitors, and school groups.

Thank you for your interest and support - we couldn't do it without your help! 

Calls by Species to the Stranding Network 2013-2015

                                   2013          2014          2015

Harbor seal                  158            176            154

Elephant seal                   1                5                4

CA sea lion                    11                8              13

Steller sea lion                 1                0                3

Harbor porpoise             12              17                7

Dalls porpoise                  2                1                0

Gray whale                       8                0                4

Orca                                 3                 0               3

Humpback whale             1                 0               5

Other                               12               14              8

       Total calls               209              221           201

 The “other” calls can be quite amusing, for example an empty bird’s nest, a penguin on Main St, a hippopotamus, stray cat and, of course, the ubiquitous river otter.

Bowhead baleen specimen for Langley Whale Center
Bowhead baleen specimen for Langley Whale Center
Walrus "oosik" from Alaska,  Langley Whale Center
Walrus "oosik" from Alaska, Langley Whale Center
Seal pup & Sea otter pelts at Langley Whale Center
Seal pup & Sea otter pelts at Langley Whale Center
Harbor Seal pup, photo by Sandra Dubpernell
Harbor Seal pup, photo by Sandra Dubpernell


Harbor seal skull and pelt on display at Whale Ctr
Harbor seal skull and pelt on display at Whale Ctr

Since 2002 the Orca Network/Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network has been authorized by NOAA to investigate dead and stranded marine mammals and collect specimens from them for testing, research and public education.

In our Langley Whale Center we have many of these specimens ranging from tiny half inch long porpoise teeth to a 17’ long jawbone of a blue whale. We have skulls of seals, sea lions and small cetaceans, harbor seal pelts and baleen and vertebrae from gray whales.  Several of our specimens have been donations from folks who had collected bones off the beach decades ago. Among these is a humpback vertebra and a walrus oosik (anyone who has ever been to Alaska knows what an oosik is).

The15,000 visitors we have had at the Langley Whale Center since we first opened in spring 2014 have enjoyed learning about the displays and many, in turn, have related their own personal experiences. (education is a 2-way street). In mid-October Orca Network's Langley Whale Center moved into a larger building, to accomodate more visitors and exhibits, and to have room for monthly presentations. We will be receiving additional specimens from the Center for Whale Research this month to add to our displays, including baleen from a Humpback whale, which is a species just recently becoming more common in Puget Sound.

In addition to collecting specimens for our own use, we have provided many tissue and skeletal specimens to other NOAA approved institutions like universities, research labs both civilian and military, major aquaria and state parks, among others.  We have provided an entire gray whale skeleton with baleen to the Smithsonian Institution for study. One of our major projects took years to complete- the collection, cleaning, preserving and reconstruction of the entire skeletons of a gray whale, Dall’s porpoise and Steller sea lion for display in the neighboring town of Coupeville.  We hope to prepare the skeleton of a harbor porpoise soon for display in our new Whale Center facility.

Along with the display specimens at the Whale Center is a notebook containing a pictorial history of the results of our investigations into the cause of death of these animals. This notebook is of particular interest to those visitors with a medical or other scientific background.

It is illegal to ever receive any remuneration for collecting and distributing marine mammal specimens, so we give a hearty and heart–felt thank you to our donorrs for enabling us with your generous donations to purchase equipment for necropsy, harvesting, cleaning and preserving specimens for education. 

Whale Vertebrae at Langley Whale Center
Whale Vertebrae at Langley Whale Center
NEW Langley Whale Ctr, and Blue Whale jawbone arch
NEW Langley Whale Ctr, and Blue Whale jawbone arch

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Organization Information

Orca Network

Location: Freeland, WA - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.orcanetwork.org
Project Leader:
Susan Berta
Greenbank, WA United States
$12,135 raised of $25,000 goal
263 donations
$12,865 to go
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